Two brothers, Pete and Louis Poulos, co-owners of Karl’s Cabin Restaurant, in Salem Township, Michigan, have a good thing going. So much so that when they say they’re merely “lucky,” you immediately think about Casey Stengel, the great New York Yankees manager, and his famous reply to a sports reporter.
The reporter had just called Stengel lucky to be head of a winning baseball team. “Yeah, I am lucky,“ the manager agreed. "But, it seems, the harder I work, the ‘luckier’ I get.”
Similarly, the Poulos brothers, like so many owners of successful small businesses, are consistently working a system that gets results. There are a number of ingredients they have put together in their recipe for small-business success.
Karl’s Cabin, known for its rustic charm and slow-roasted prime rib, has operated since the 1940s but came into the Poulos family in 1982 when it was purchased by Karl and Sophia Poulos. Brothers Pete and Louis took over in 1999. So, what’s the secret sauce behind Karl’s longevity and profitable growth curve? What lessons can other small businesses take away? In an interview, Pete Poulos identified several key factors.
1. Healthy food
The brothers take pride in their generous portions and good food. Presently, 100 percent of the food served is prepared fresh on the premises. Gluten-free choices set the restaurant apart from its competitors as does water purified through reverse osmosis. Although the investment in the purification equipment was substantial, the brothers put a priority on high-quality water to serve patrons and use in cooking.
2. An all-around family restaurant
The business provides lunch, dinner and entertainment. In addition, it hosts banquets and weddings, often on its massive patio for outdoor events. With its wide variety of wines and over 20 types of beer, the restaurant has built a loyal client base. The key here is, the restaurant is not trying to be all things to all people.
3. Hiring good people
Karl’s goes to great lengths to make sure it hires the right kind of people to fit in with the rest of the team. A multiple-interview process is involved: Each new candidate is interviewed by several different members of management and full-time staff. This results in a triple win, where the staff, the newly hired employee and the restaurant patrons all reap the benefits of a harmonious work environment; and employees enjoy the restaurant’s family-friendly atmosphere.
4. Extensive and ongoing training
Once a new staff person is hired, the training period lasts two to three weeks. This ensures that the new employee masters the tools to maintain the highest level of consistent and excellent service. Training is an area where many small businesses are nonconsistent. But using a system the way Karl’s does, to train new hires in the same way it has their co-workers, produces predictable results in performance.
Ongoing training is another priority. Karl’s owners encourage staff to read the same restaurant publications they do, and to stay current with developments in the industry. They also have select staff attend annual restaurant shows and conferences put on by state and national restaurant associations. The key point here is budgeting for professional development, and using it on a regular basis.
5. Extensive communication
If anything, Karl’s does more communication than most small businesses do. Weekly meetings, daily meetings with wait staff and constant communication throughout the day ensure that all management and staff are kept in the loop. Pete Poulos believes that the steady flow of communication prevents avoid costly errors.
The brothers also strive to communicate directly with their employees. They say they’ve learned that not taking into account individual communication styles can cost them time, money and lost customers. Instead, the goal is to use clear communication to keep the atmosphere upbeat and fun.
6. Social media marketing.
Karl’s Cabin utilizes a variety of marketing techniques, one of which is social media. Facebook, Twitter and a large email club are central to the mix. This approach includes a newsletter informing patrons of upcoming wine dinners, live music, dueling pianos and other unique events. Newsletter links allow readers to experience a bit of the atmosphere and live music recordings of the performers.
Another tool is a detailed message, when callers are put on hold, about Karl’s services and specials. The purpose goes beyond information – to decrease callers’ impatience with their wait and sometimes even entertain them.
Also part of the marketing mix are print mailers which include discount coupons. Contrary to other restaurants’ negative stance on discounting their food, Pete Poulos says he believes that this approach, done properly, works well to bring in new clients and keep the regulars coming back for more.
As for competition, the co-owner explained that the business does not focus much on what its competitors are doing. Overall, Poulos says, his advice to other small business owners is to accept the fact that to be successful requires a lot of hard work. If the owner remains innovative, however, and works hard, what results can be an amazing feeling of satisfaction of running a successful and profitable small business.